Of course, when you’re talking about Fosse, you can really say all 8 of his moves, because he really doesn’t have many more.
As in so many things, Fosse’s greatest weakness, an extraordinarily limited movement vocabulary, is his greatest strength; the few moves that he has are so associated with him that, when anyone else tries them, it’s immediately obvious that they’re a second-rate copy.
Slightly under the weather – and what weather we are under here in the midwest – I turned to various old standbys for comfort. Cabaret never fails to instantly reward and mesmerize. Within the first few seconds, you’re plunged headlong into a George Grosz painting; even the deco font used for the names looks jaded, louche. The choreography, and it’s his best for film, kicks off right away. Vintage Fosse, it repositions and distorts those scant moves in ways devilish and inventive, and bursting with an exuberant, near-childlike delight.
Fosse achieves his greatest truth when dancing in dirt, and his greatest missteps were when he tried to make art. In him, profanity is an art form; when he stretches to be sacred, it’s terrible, as in much of Dancin’ and the pretentious Airotica “ballet” from All That Jazz. What makes Cabaret such a joy to watch is that every step looks like one that the Kit Kat Girls would have invented. The casting of the Girls is fantastic. Thighs are big and bruised, some (certainly not all) waistlines are slack, more than one has a double chin. Made up to look like strung-out whores with maybe a year before syphilis carries them off, they twist, don’t swing their hips; it’s the most sinister sexuality you’ll ever see, all the more effective because it IS sexy. There’s not a single graceful moment in the whole thing. Lines are constantly jagged, the antithesis of ballet; even the costumes fragment the bodies into cubist blocks. And while I’m hardly the first to observe that if Sally Bowles had sung like Liza Minnelli, she never would’ve stayed at the Kit Kat Club, it’s clear that the girls dancing behind her would have had a tough time getting work anywhere else. It’s there or the alley.
But Fosse reserves his greatest choreography for the camera, and his astonishing sense of how to film a dance is just one of the things that helps to put him in the pantheon of great directors, even with only 5 films to his credit (the first of which, Sweet Charity, is dreadful, but appears to have been a helluva training lab). Dance is a nightmare to film; sometimes you want the intimacy of a dancer’s face, foot, or hand, sometimes you want to scrutinize a move as it appears on one body, sometimes you want the whole she-bang proscenium view. Fosse’s musicality, timing, and instinct for anticipating exactly what we want to see is true genius, and so rare as to be almost singular. If you don’t believe me, watch 1 minute of any Rob Marshall abomination to see what I mean.
All those qualities holds true for the rest of his filming. His close-ups can be every bit as pitiless as Bergman, but they can also caress, in frames suffused with tender light. He was smart enough to work with the best d.p.s – Geoffrey Unsworth here, Guiseppe Rotunno on All That Jazz, and Sven Nykvist on Star 80, Bruce Surtees on Lenny, and Robert Surtees, Bruce’s dad, on the unfortunate but good-looking Charity – but he told them what to shoot. And dances makes up very little of either of the dance movies. Every sequence in Cabaret has clarity and beauty. One of the most striking is the famous “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” number, in which a pastoral Sunday at a biergarten becomes a mini Nuremburg rally. But the scene is much more powerful in context; throughout, we’ve witnessed Nazi violence, but Fosse’s cutting has seduced us into ignoring it to look at sexy people and pretty colors. The song slaps us in the face, brought home by 2 unforgettable cuts to the only person who doesn’t stand and salute Hitler, an ancient man with a devastated face. The fact that evil is banal makes it no less evil – perhaps more so.
Early on, I use to skip through Cabaret for the dances – and also, at least in part, because Liza is a bit much. (The fact that she’s watchable at all, and even good when she isn’t singing, when. of course, she’s great, is a tribute to Fosse, who routinely directed actors in the best performances they would ever give.) But at this point, I wouldn’t dream of hitting the chapter stop. In the final minute, Joel Grey bids us good night over unresolved music. We pan over a mylar reflection of the audience, now heavily tricked out in brown shirts and red armbands. A drumsticks pings off a highat; the credits roll in silence. You earn the chill that you get from committing to the whole thrilling thing.
At the screening, Vincent Minnelli is reported to have said that he had at last seen a perfect film. Honestly, I think there are quite a few perfect films out there. The Lady from Shanghai, City Lights, The 400 Blows, Tess, The New World, Il Divo – I can rattle them off at will. In my mind, it’s not about whether or not a movie is flawless; I wouldn’t know anyway. Movies are perfect because, in one of the most collaborative art forms, everyone gave a shit, gave it their all, in order to say, story matters, art matters, beauty matters, and remembering matters. How marvelous to have so many of those statements out there, preserved for, if not forever, at least a good long time.